50 pages 1 hour read

Carol Gilligan

In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1982

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Summary and Study Guide


In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development is an academic monograph written by social psychologist Carol Gilligan and published by Harvard University Press in 1982. Gilligan’s academic background includes a BA in English, an MA in clinical psychology, and a PhD in social psychology. Gilligan is interested in human development, including moral development, with a focus on women. While teaching at Harvard, Gilligan was colleagues with renowned developmental psychologists Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg. In a Different Voice critiques Kohlberg’s theory of moral development for its assumption and privileging of a masculine approach to moral decision-making. Gilligan attempts to theorize women’s moral development as different from, but ultimately complementary to, men’s moral development in Different Voice.

Gilligan’s methodology and analysis have since been questioned by scholars. Some of her critics have accused her of using insufficient data, while others, such as Naomi Weisstein, believe that Gilligan’s ideas perpetuate a type of gender essentialism. Nonetheless, In a Different Voice has become a canonical text in gender studies, social and developmental psychology, and ethics. It is most well-known for its theorization of a feminist ethic of care.

This study guide uses the Harvard University Press’s 2003 edition of In a Different Voice.

Content Warning: The source text discusses views on and experiences of abortion.


Carol Gilligan argues in In a Different Voice that women’s psychological and moral development is different from that of men. This difference, however, has not been recognized by developmental and social psychologists, who have created developmental and moral paradigms that are biased toward masculine ways of thinking and feeling.

While wide-ranging in its critique against the field of developmental and moral psychology, Gilligan’s book focuses on developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development and his specific stages of moral development (See: Background). Kohlberg’s theory is based on research subjects who are exclusively male. Kohlberg’s moral staging privileges an orientation toward individual rights and legalistic ways of thinking that value the individual’s autonomy and right not to be intruded upon. Gilligan argues that girls, however, do not approach moral dilemmas through legalistic thinking or a focus on the individual or autonomy. Instead, girls tend to approach moral dilemmas through a framework of relationality rather than individuality, and rather than an ethic of justice or individual rights, they adopt an ethic of care that assumes lived relations as fundamental to moral decisions.

Kohlberg’s theory and stages of moral development are based on subjects’ responses to fictional moral dilemmas and the justifications that they offer for potential actions taken in response to these dilemmas. Gilligan focuses on Kohlberg’s most well-known dilemma, the Heinz dilemma, in which a man is presented as having to choose between his wife dying or stealing a drug that he has been assured will save her life from a local pharmacist. Gilligan draws attention to the ways that Kohlberg leads the respondents to assume a rights orientation (right to property, right to life). Gilligan shows how girls, however, often refuse this approach and are therefore deemed less morally developed. Instead of the question of whether Heinz should steal the drug or not, the girls often prefer to think about what could be achieved through discussion, approaching the dilemma not through rights but through relations.

Gilligan’s critique of moral developmental theory builds from here. She goes on to work with a group of women who are trying to decide whether to have an abortion. In working with this particular moral dilemma, Gilligan provides a uniquely female experience that requires a real-life decision. Rather than Kohlberg’s fictional dilemma, this is a lived dilemma. Gilligan, too, pays close attention to the women’s attempts to think through their decisions, weaving these “different voices” throughout her book so that she does not speak for other women, instead letting these women speak for themselves on the page.

Gilligan theorizes that women think through an ethic of care that is based in the idealistic premise of never causing harm. This ethic of care, however, is dangerous, as it has generally not included women themselves. An ethic of rights (in which women have full human rights), then, is necessary for an ethic of care to include women themselves. Men think through an ethic of rights, which idealistically assumes equality, but this system, too, must be tempered by an ethic of care, which recognizes vulnerability and the reality that not all exist equally.

Gilligan ultimately argues that these two ethics or orientations encompass the paradox of human lives, and that both men and women are constantly navigating the pull of the individual and the community, of rights and of care. Women and men start from these opposed positions, working their way toward an understanding of the other’s position that tempers their own starting point.

Gilligan insists that women’s ways of understanding must be acknowledged and considered in any theory of human and moral development, not only so that women’s “different voice” is not silenced, but also so that all humans have a better understanding of their own existence.

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